Asleep at the wheel - the hidden danger on British roads

Article date: 7 April 2006

  • Thousands of motorists at risk of serious injury

With driver sleepiness estimated to be a factor in up to 20,000accidents on UK roads last year1, new research reveals agrowing number of UK drivers putting their own, and other roadusers’ lives at risk by driving further and longer whilsttired.

In the lead-up to bank holiday season, the RAC ‘SleepyHeads’ report revealed that British motorists are pushingthemselves to the limit by driving an average of 350 miles in asingle journey without taking a break, as well as ignoring thetell-tale warning signs of driver sleepiness.

The ‘Sleepy Heads’ research of 1,000 motoristsreveals that:

  • Nearly half of drivers (46%) admit to taking to the wheelwhilst feeling drowsy
  • Over one third of drivers (34%) have been close to fallingasleep at the wheel
  • One in 10 (11%) have driven over 500 miles in a single journeywithout taking a break, with the biggest risk takers being menaged 35-64 years old
  • One in five drivers (20%) are completely unaware there aresome simple steps that they can take to stay alert

Driver fatigue is often overlooked by motorists, with a third(30%) of Brits now prepared to drive greater distances and one in10 (11%) clocking up an extra 200 miles per journey compared to twoyears ago. Now RAC is campaigning for drivers to plan ahead, paymore attention to the signs of driver sleepiness and to takeregular breaks on long journeys.

But many motorists place themselves at greater risk by trustingin ‘motoring myths’ to keep them awake. Apart from thecompany of having a passenger in the car, nearly three quarters ofUK drivers (69%) think the best way to stay awake is to wind thewindow down and over one in three (35%) just turn up the stereo,unaware these quick fix solutions offer limited, if any benefit tofighting drowsiness.

Robin Cummins, RAC road safety consultant, said: “Cars aremore comfortable than ever and long journeys can lull motoristsinto a false sense of security. The dangers of drink driving andspeeding are well documented, but with driver sleepinessthere’s still some way to go, especially since drivers areusing ineffective methods to prevent falling asleep at the wheel.It’s crucial that we take the time to plan breaks andrecognise when our bodies need a rest, to ensure we are capable ofstaying alert and able to concentrate to ultimately protect bothour own, and other people’s safety.”

Jim Horne, director of Loughborough University’s sleepresearch centre, added: “Motorists who ignore the obvioussigns of tiredness and push themselves to the limit are takingserious risks. They don’t seem to realise that crashesinvolving falling asleep at the wheel are more likely to be fatalbecause of the absence of braking and greater speed at impact.

“Our studies have shown that drivers are particularlyvulnerable in the small hours of the morning when the body clock isat its lowest, and especially on dull monotonous roads. Thereis also a ‘dip’ in the mid-afternoon, when the risk ofthese crashes is also higher. Motorists’ increasing tendencyto push themselves to the limit, because of work pressures, isagain very worrying, and in this respect, employers should bear agreater responsibility in ensuring the safety of theirstaff.”

To help UK drivers to avoid the perils of driver fatigue, RACrecommends the following advice for staying awake:

  1. Plan your journey to include a 15-minute break every two hoursof driving.
  2. If you start to feel sleepy find a safe place to stop (not thehard shoulder of the motorway) as soon as possible.
  3. Drink 2 cups of coffee or other high caffeine drink and have a10-15 minute rest to allow time for the caffeine to kick in.
  4. Have a good night's sleep before setting out on a longjourney.
  5. Although it might seem like a good way to beat the traffic,avoid making long trips between midnight-6am and 2-4pm whennatural alertness is low.
  6. Share the driving if possible.


RAC Press office contact
Chris Lauwerys orJames Ruane at Lexis PR on 0207 908 6465 or 0207 908 6474
Liz Kennett or Paul Hodgson at RAC Press Office on 01603 688263 or0208 917 2541

Notes to editors

1Estimate derived from accident figures taken fromDepartment for Transport, Transport Statistics Road Safety reportand information contained in DfT Road Safety Research Report No 21on Driver Sleepiness.

RAC commissioned ICM to conduct research amongst 1,000 male andfemale drivers aged 18–65+ across the UK between 15 March to16 March 2006

About RAC

  • With around seven million members, RAC is one of the UK's mostprogressive motoring organizations, providing services for bothprivate and business motorists. Whether it's roadsideassistance, windscreen repair and replacement, learning to drive,vehicle inspections and checks, legal and financial services orup-to-the-minute traffic and travel information - RAC is able tomeet motorists’ needs. RAC incorporates BSM, RAC AutoWindscreens, RAC Direct Insurance and HPI.
  • Aviva bought RAC last year. The acquisition bringstogether RAC's powerful brand and customer base with the expertiseand leading position in motor insurance of Norwich Union Insurance(part of Aviva). Norwich Union is the UK's largest insurer,insuring one in seven motor vehicles and with a market share ofaround 14 per cent.
  • RAC is an official partner of the DfT’s Think! Drivertiredness campaign.
  • THINK! is designed to save lives and campaigns all year roundto get people to think more about road safety. As part of theGovernment's strategy, its aim is to cut the number of deaths andserious injuries from road accidents by 40% by 2010.

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